Hague Defends "Secret Court" Bill

by
Reuters
Foreign Secretary William Hague defended a controversial bill introducing secret court hearings into civil law, saying on Monday the move was necessary to protect national security and Britain's intelligence relationships abroad.

William Hague

Foreign Secretary William Hague defended a controversial bill introducing secret court hearings into civil law, saying on Monday the move was necessary to protect national security and Britain's intelligence relationships abroad.

The Justice and Security Bill, which would allow civil courts in England and Wales to hold closed hearings to review sensitive evidence barred to claimants, is due to be debated on Monday and Wednesday in the House of Lords.

Civil rights groups say the proposal would deprive litigants of a fair trial and the Liberal Democrats have voiced their opposition to the bill.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Hague brushed away charges that the bill would tarnish Britain's reputation for fair justice and said it would instead help avoid costly out-of-court settlements over allegations of abuse by its intelligence services.

"The government currently has no mechanism to defend itself while protecting intelligence relationships. So there is no choice but to settle out of court, often involving large sums of public money and leaving an allegation hanging," Hague wrote.

Members of the domestic intelligence agency MI5 and its foreign equivalent MI6 have in past years faced accusations they colluded in ill-treatment of detainees, often at the hands of U.S. authorities after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In November 2010, Britain agreed to pay millions of pounds to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees in an out-of-court settlement to end a series of legal battles over torture allegations and avoid releasing secret material in the process.

Hague stressed that the proposed bill would not create secret courts but rather closed hearings for evidence likely to affect national security once disclosed.

Material that is not sensitive to security would still be dealt with in the open, he noted, stressing that the bill would help some cases be tried -- rather than settled -- without putting Britain's interests in jeopardy.

"The bill will allow courts to probe and push any government defence. It will ensure accountability. And it will enable us to retain the trust of partners and agents," Hague wrote.

Last week, Britain's parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights released a scathing report on the bill, saying the government had not provided enough data and evidence to justify what it saw as "a radical departure from the UK's constitutional tradition of open justice and fairness".

Amnesty International warned that the proposal would enable the government to prevent individuals and their lawyers from seeing sensitive documents, even when they show the involvement of UK officials in wrongdoing.

Human rights group Reprieve drew a parallel between the bill and Prime Minister David Cameron's recent pledge to impose restrictions on judicial review in its bid to slash legal and regulatory obstacles to economic growth.

"The right to a fair trial and the principle that no one is above the law are hard-won freedoms which we should cherish," said Clare Algar, Reprieve's Executive Director.

"Yet David Cameron appears to regard these ancient rights as a mere inconvenience to be brushed aside."